Participation & Governance

Youth development in Kenya, the illegal arms trade and the need for an International Arms Treaty

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Sitting in the shade under a thatched hut constructed in the middle of a searing hot African plain were six young warriors of the Pokot tribe. They were there taking a break from tending their fields of maize. Inconspicuously, about three yards away lay four AK-47’s, the modern small arm of choice in developed and developing contexts, belonging to four of the warriors.This was the time for planting but they still needed to be prepared for an attack by the neighbouring warriors of the Turkana tribe.

Attacks were increasing, correlated with the steady decline of river water and the on-going conflict of where each other’s border lay. I was in Kenya’s Northern Rift Valley conducting research on the illegal small arms trade flowing in from neighbouring Uganda and South Sudan, and how this illegal trade is affecting the pastoral conflict between the Pokot and Turkana that has taken place for generations.

The introduction of high-powered assault rifles into an otherwise simplistically armed conflict during the 1980’s ratcheted up violence in the Northern Rift Valley of Kenya. This violence affects pastoral communities’ livelihoods in unprecedented ways. Being these communities natures and livelihoods are wrapped up into having mobile, resource seeking herds of cattle, free to roam and graze, global climate changes have forced farmers into other territory and thus into conflict. Increasingly, small arms have made a sizeable impact on these conflicts. Beginning in the 1980’s, cattle raiding, a cornerstone in the pastoral economy has become more violent due to the increasing availability of small arms. As the availability of small arms has increased, guns are more frequently used during cattle raiding. Thus, in the remote villageof Tikeeton the border of Pokot and Turkana lands I found myself face to face with the evidence of a booming arms trade affecting not only cultural norms but also pastoral families and the futures of dozens of young people thrown into cultures of violence.

Through the use of interviews with young warriors, mothers of warriors, elders, and the chief several key themes emerged; availability of small arms, shifting power dynamics, and education as a credible way to end the violence. The shocking availability of small arms in the region is partially attributed to the fall of Idi Amin’s government in Uganda during the late 1970s and the militaries lacklustre monitoring of arms shipments. As well, shipments also enter Kenya through South Sudan and the sudden militarisation of the newly adopted country. The rise of violence in the Northern Rift Valley of Kenya at during the 1970s correlates to increased sales of illegal arms through Uganda. These arms shipments into the Pokot District are brought in by donkey through the porous Kenyan-Ugandan and South Sudan border to dealers waiting to sell off the arms to pastoralists offering up several head of their cattle to pay for an AK-47 and several caches of ammunition. Nearly every family in Tikeet, a large community in the Pokot District, owns a weapon.

New research and literature suggests the influx of small arms has now also created new cultural norms and symbols of power within pastoral communities. This has led to an increasing disregard for cultural power relations among tribal elders and chiefs. Power relations have shifted from the village elder to whoever carries the largest gun. Within this shift researchers have developed the term “cattle warlord-ism”, the theory suggests there is dwindling respect for elders and their authority is declining only to be replaced by powerful men with the access to weapons and commercial livestock markets.

The availability of small arms in the Pokot District is leading a shift in cultural power dynamics within communities. Historically, the power within a community lies primarily with its chief and small group of elders. The influx of small arms is creating pockets of young warriors acknowledging the power of the chiefs and elders on principal but declaring their might by brandishing their AK-47. Throughout the study, it was found these young warriors did not allow local chiefs to attend pre-raid blessings, another cultural phenomenon. This pre-raid blessing must be voted on by attending members and the warriors say if the chief were invited he would use his power to call off the raid. This shift is tied to a changing cultural attitude, particularly in Tikeet, where owning a weapon makes a young person have a sense of status or wealth. New warriors are not solely fighting the Turkana with small arms to protect the community or raid cattle but they are doing so with something to prove, a community to boast to, and a willing opponent to fight with. This shifting power dynamic could be cultural, but in Tikeet there is an element of apathy to authority and an element of lawlessness provoked by power in the hands of young warriors. Whereas the chief of a village would have final say over the blessing and how the raid would commence, he now has become a third character and is seemingly left out.

Lastly, education was a constant theme throughout the study as a way of encouraging peace and cooperation between the Pokot and Turkana warriors. The community of Tikeet identified being uneducated with a belligerent attitude and participation in the on-going conflict. As well, it was indicated being educated lifted one above the conflict and able to act as mediator or peaceful observer. The amount of schools in the area is astonishingly low and children of pastoral families have to walk miles to attend. The young warriors indicated it is easier to drop out of school, earn a few of the family cattle, buy a weapon and survive than to attend school.

Locations like the Northern Rift Valley of Kenya would greatly benefit from the adoption of an International Arms Treaty, much like the one recently stalled by the United States officials in United Nations (UN) negotiations. The development of the treaty would help significantly reduce the availability of small arms in countries like Kenya. The UN should continue pursuing terms of the treaty with UN Security Council members and other member countries, particularly the United States to ensure young people are not caught in the cross hairs of perpetually violent conflicts like the youth of Pokot and Turkana Districts are drawn into on a daily basis.

Additional articles by Barrett Alexander on include:

Youth Political Participation in Rural Sierra Leone